When it comes to the few regional leaders who wield actual power in Russia, most think of Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov or Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin. The president of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov gets fewer mentions. However, beyond the wealth and the distinct cultural traditions of his republic, Minnikhanov’s networking also has a lot to do with his relatively strong position within Russia’s political elite. But what is he going to do with it?
One thing that you can tell about Rustam Minnikhanov, the president of the Republic of Tatarstan, one of Russia’s regions with a considerable degree of autonomy, is that he will do his utmost to appear in good company. And “good” in this case almost always means “useful”. In a somewhat amusing video from May, Minnikhanov makes a dash at Vladimir Putin, walking down a lane in Tatarstan’s capital, Kazan. With surgical precision, the Tatar president scampers in through a thicket of military officers and officials, among them defense minister Sergei Shoigu, to end up on Putin’s side. At the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June, Minnikhanov was photographed sitting between Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin and Tula governor Alexei Dyumin – Putin’s former body guard – with a broad smile on his face. He then received a shout-out on the president’s annual call-in show in the president’s answer to a question about refugees from the Donbas, which allowed Putin to talk about his threat of giving fast-tracked citizenship to Ukrainian nationals.
Lately when Minnikhanov is not standing or sitting for photo-ops, he likes to appear in traditional Tatar garments, somewhat surprisingly from a leader who rose to prominence in the 2010s championing modernization as an ally of the tech-savvy persona of then president Dmitry Medvedev. But Tatarstan faces a parliamentary election in September and a presidential election in 2020. Minnikhanov – as well as the local chapter of the United Russia party – is keen to show his conservative and patriotic side, even though, as many other candidates in Russia’s other federal subjects, he is also trying to distance himself from United Russia. He has also recently succeeded in removing one of his emerging rivals, Ayrat Haynullin, the young mayor of Almetyevsk, an oil-producing city, appointing him minister of informatization and communications instead, a relatively harmless position much closer to the president.
Minnikhanov has numerous reasons to fear political rivalry. At 62 years and at the end of his second term as Tatarstan’s president, his position at the helm of the republic is far from secure. If he were to run again next year, the constitution of Tatarstan would have to be changed first to allow this (though some say that since he was only elected once, in 2015, after having been appointed by presidential decree in 2010, some legal acrobatics would suffice). In past years, scores of officials once seen close to Medvedev have been dismissed. The Kremlin is experimenting with appointing younger leaders and outsiders to head regions instead of aging incumbents who have legitimacy problems. Rumors abound about Minnikhanov’s demotion to a senator, to a minister in the federal government or to an ambassador to Turkey, given his amicable relationship with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
A unique course
What makes Minnikhanov’s fate interesting is that Tatarstan is no ordinary federal subject. Unlike Chechnya, which waged a bloody war of independence against the federal government in the 1990s, Tatarstan, itself a majority Muslim republic with a strong cultural identity, decided not to insist on carrying through its dependence declaration once the Russian constitutional court struck it down. It helped that Tatarstan’s president at the time, Mintimer Shaimiev was a towering national political figure who was then able to negotiate a power-sharing agreement between Moscow and his republic. It also helped that Tatarstan was sitting on an estimated 1 billion tons of crude oil, the extraction of which neither side wanted to endanger. The oil industry and the power-sharing agreement together guaranteed a rapid economic growth. Today Tatarstan is Russia’s sixth wealthiest region and while the power-sharing agreement between Moscow and Kazan was downgraded in 2007 and then left to lapse in 2017, the republic has preserved its control over Tatneft, the state-owned oil company pumping Tatarstan’s crude: Rustam Minnikhanov is the president of Tatneft’s board of directors. This happened even as Russia’s federally owned oil giant, Rosneft took control of Bashneft, an oil company in neighboring Bashkortostan that was privatized in 2003.
Kazan, which has its own Kremlin built by Ivan the Terrible, has also tried to become an important cultural, political and economic hub. In the early 2010s, it fashioned itself as a center for Islamic finance and gradually developed its own foreign policy initiatives in relation to trade and investment with China and Turkey. In 2013, it held the Universiade, an athletic competition for university students. It created its own hi-tech business park and hosted matches of the FIFA World Cup in 2018. In February this year, as a nod to the city’s importance from the president, Putin chaird the meeting of the State Council, a high-level advisory body, in Kazan.
Meanwhile, Minnikhanov, a former agricultural engineer and local party cadre who never had the strong national political credentials of his predecessor, has tried to make up for his lack of standing with a fair amount of networking. Rather differently from Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov who relies on his close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin and his hitmen across the country but has no strong power network beyond this, Minnikhanov has developed a regional political network unlike any other regional leader’s save for Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin. He has tried to act as a big brother of Russia’s two Altai regions and of the neighbouring Bashkortostan. He has allies in the Moscow city administration centred around Marat Khusnullin, a deputy mayor of the Russian capital overseeing urban development projects. He is reportedly being considered for a position to oversee the implementation of the performance indicators developed by the Presidential Administration for Russia’s regional leaders. Since 2018, Artem Zdunov, a former minister of economy of Tatarstan has been the prime minister of Dagestan. Regular flights between Makhachkala and Kazan were set up.
Kremlin bastions under siege
Minnikhanov’s attempts to strengthen his position in the North Caucasus as well as to fashion himself and his government as the go-to person in matters of Islam puts him on a collision course with Kadyrov. Muslims officially make up more than six percent of Russia’s population, giving anyone able to assume de facto political leadership over them a considerable bargaining chip in negotiations with the federal government; a bargaining chip that both Kadyrov and Minnikhanov need, due to the former’s strong personal dependence on Putin and the latter’s lack of the kind of trump cards that Kadyrov has (a private army and a near-totalitarian control over a restive territory).
But it is not only Kadyrov who would like to see Minnikhanov’s grip on Tatarstan weakened. The republic has faced a series of crises in recent years that risked seriously undermining Minnikhanov’s authority. In 2017, besides the non-renewal of the power sharing agreement (which Minnikhanov dismissed as an issue less important than the continuation of the cooperation itself) Moscow moved to wrestle bits of Tatarstan’s cultural autonomy away from the regional government by ending the compulsory education of republican languages in Russia’s ethnic republics. In the same year, a severe banking crisis shook the republic, which saw the licenses of three banks revoked due to fraudulent lending and also raised questions about a possible collusion between the banks and the regional government. Hundreds protested in Kazan against Ildar Khalikov, then the region’s prime minister and the head of the board of Tatfondbank, one of the troubled lenders. Even Alexei Navalny flew to Kazan to pin the blame on the increasingly subordinate relationship that the federal government forced on regional governments.
The three crises happened in such close succession that while it is of course entirely possible that all of this was a coincidence, rumors started to circulate in Kazan and in Moscow that the federal government was deliberately turning up the heat on Minnikhanov, either to forestall future problems with an emerging regional power hub or to convince the republic’s government that it needs to cede control of Tatneft to Rosneft. Also in 2017, talk about a planned public administration reform intensified, which would allegedly see Minnikhanov receive a sinecure position at the head of a bigger administrative unit comprising several republics in the Middle Volga region, which would nonetheless have weaker political autonomy and a more diluted ethnic character. This has not happened yet, but the 2017 crises have shown that in case Moscow did want to rein in on Tatarstan, it would be able to activate sleeping bombs relatively quickly.
Presently it is unclear what Minnikhanov’s plans are with his ambitiously built network. Unlike Kadyrov whose ambitions almost certainly stop at the borders of the North Caucasus, Minnikhanov’s could possibly range from the preservation of Tatneft to a position of federal importance. His choices, however, will shape Tatarstan’s relationship with the federal government and it is not unlikely that they will have an impact on the future of other Russian republics with an ethnic character.